Supposed Suicide

In late September 1879, at nearly one in the morning, a young woman died suddenly on Price’s Hill (now the Cincinnati neighborhood of Price Hill).

The Initial Story

Josephine M- was with a friend named George W-. George was a conductor on the Ohio and Mississippi railroad. They’d known each other for almost two years. George told the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, that the pair were walking down the hill when Josephine fainted in his arms. Which I find suspect. You either faint and fall to the ground or throw yourself into someone’s arms. I get the allure of the latter. I want to be caught too, but let’s be realistic. Based on what else I know about George he probably thought it would be cool to catch her, missed, and then lied. Anyway, he couldn’t wake her up so he ran for help. When he got back with a physician, she was dead. It is implied that Josephine must have killed herself because she was otherwise young and in good health.

The Real* Story

Josephine M- was actually Mrs. Josephine S-, a married woman, about 26 years old. Her husband, John S- was on duty at Fort Mead as a member of Company F, 1st Regular Infantry, and had been for four years. While he was gone Josephine had lived with her mother, Mrs. M-, who ran a boarding-house on Neave Street. Josephine had recently received a letter that her husband had saved enough money to come home. There is some discrepancies on the status of John S- who is described as being run out of the home by Mrs. M- for worthlessness.

George, was a boarder of Mrs. M- and had been for about a year. He quickly started paying too much attention to Josephine, which prompted both her mother and her sister to step in and ask her to be careful. Their rooms were only three doors apart and it was known that they met clandestinely. The paper states that there was “no suspicion of criminal intimacy”. Which seems pretty far fetched considering the circumstances. Mrs. M- eventually kicked him out. It’s possible she just didn’t like guys that were into her daughter. The Enquirer, who spoke with him, said he claimed to be engaged to Josephine who was planning to divorce her husband.

The next part of the story matches George’s account, the pair was walking down the hill, she fainted, he went for help, and she died. The physician, Dr. Culver, called the coroner but was very insistent that there was no need for inquest. The coroner thought this was odd and ordered both an inquest and George’s arrest. Often times the newspapers contradicted each other, which also happened here. Another paper claimed that Dr. Culver insisted on an inquest.

The Inquest

Mrs. M- testified before the coroner that her daughter had been married for six years and had a five year old child. She claimed not to know if she “kept company” with anyone but admitted that she was nervous that her daughter was “too intimate” with George.

Dr. Culver testified that he had never treated Josephine, but had known George for 9 months. He says he was the closest Doctor to the spot where she fell which is why he was called to help. He claims that he picked her up, put her on the seat of his buggy, and held her in his arms until they got to her house. When asked why he held her, he said it was simply due to friendly feelings. That phrase probably had less creepy implications back then.

The coroner met them at the house and pulled a bottle of oil of tansy out of Josephine’s pocket. Oil of tansy was medicinal and came from the Tansy plant. It was used for embalming, digestive tract issues, painful conditions, and to induce abortion.

At the post-mortem it was discovered that Josephine was pregnant.

“The examination showed that instrumental interference had taken place to secure an abortion. The death of the woman might have been due to a shock coma, convulsions or interference with the uterus.”

Cincinnati Daily Star September 29, 1879.

Following the Inquest, the Coroner decided that Josephine had died from the effects of oil of tansy and “other methods used with the intention of producing abortion”. The other methods were described as a blunt medical instrument. He also found George to be an accessory to the death. Dr. Culver became very upset at George’s arrest and was nearly arrested himself for all the “storming and swearing” he directed at the police. Makes you wonder why he was so invested. He had the below exchange with an Enquirer reporter when asked about the medicine found on Josephine. It was noted that he had a smirk on his face for the conversation:

“I’ve got nothing to say about that.”
“But she had the medicine with her.”
“Well, she didn’t take any of it.”
“Would it have killed her if she had taken it?”

The Cincinnati Enquirer September 29, 1879

The Trial…or Lack Thereof

George was charged with manslaughter. This charge was withdrawn and replaced with aiding and abetting in the procuring of an abortion. He was indicted. There are several short articles noting that the Prosecution asked for extensions before trial, one of which said, the Coroner and the Prosecutor disagreed about the case. There is no more mention of George in Cincinnati newspapers until July 2, 1880 when he attempted to kick a robber off his train and was shot. The ball entered his right arm and didn’t come out. At the next stop a doctor attempted to find the ball by digging into the wound, but was unsuccessful. For some reason, it brings me a small measure of comfort that this was likely very painful. That’s something I should probably examine.

There is no evidence the case ever went to trial. Knowing only George’s name and occupation I wasn’t able to determine what eventually happened to him. Josephine’s son grew up and married. It’s unclear if his father came back.

*Real as summarized via several conflicting newspaper accounts

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, The Cincinnati Daily Star, The Cincinnati Enquirer

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